The British Business Group in Dubai has been nominated as the best of its kind in the world for a second successive year. Its chief says teamwork is what makes his organisation stand out.
Virtues that manifest the very best of British
Jonathon Davidson is coming up to a year as the chairman and chief executive of the British Business Group (BBG) in Dubai and the Northern Emirates. He talks about the challenges of representing the interests of UK business in the region during difficult economic times.
Congratulations on being named the best British business club in the world for the second time. What's the secret of your success?
Yes, it was good to win it, there is lots of competition. Virtually every country has a British business group or federation, and some have more. There were probably 400 to 500 groups up against us in total. But the secret really is for the leadership to put a good team in place. We've got seven people full-time, compared with three or four a couple of years ago, with a very active committee that's developed business specialisms, like finance, business development and media.
Explain to me, in essence, what the BBG is all about. How do you serve your members' interests and the wider interests of British business in the region?
I think it's all about reconnecting British business with the Emirati community. In the boom years, you could more or less stand on your own. You didn't really have to address relations with our Emirati hosts because we were both, British and Emirati, too busy making money and getting on with business. Now, after the credit crisis, we realise we're both much stronger when Emiratis are working together with the British. They bring local knowledge, culture, history and contacts; we bring an international perspective. Our patron now is [Sheikh] Juma bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, and he's been doing a great job.
What feel are you getting from BBG members on the economy of Dubai? Is the worst of the crisis over?
People feel the UAE is back on track. Over the past four years we've gone through confusion, pain, depression, some glimmers of hope and now in 2012 there's a determination to see it through. The US recovery is very important for the UAE. The euro zone, of course, is a problem, but we're not too obsessed with Europe. Dubai and the UAE now serve as a hub for the rest of the Middle East, Russia, India and further east. The BBGs in the Gulf Cooperation Council region meet once a year, but there are more informal links too, with Delhi and Mumbai. Regarding Dubai, I think lessons have been learnt from the crisis. The economy here is more efficient now, there is less wastage. It is far more frugal in its use of resources. The motto used to be "build it and they will come", but now it has to be a more thought-out process and more efficient. People cannot just sit back and wait for business to come, you have to pitch more actively. There's been a drive to quality, which makes economic sense. This is a traditional British strength, but now we also know the British will price themselves into the work as well.
Some of your members were waiting for payment of some pretty big bills by the Government and other contractors. Has this situation improved?
Our visitors to Dubai - politicians and business people - all have on their agenda the idea that there's a large amount of debt here as a result of the construction boom and bust. There has been some improvement. Debts have been collected, compromises reached, and now the amounts outstanding have been reduced. But there are still concerns, the liquidity situation is still affected. The BBG membership feels the underlying principles are back in place. Most of the troubling situations have been resolved on a medium to long-term basis. But we're still waiting to see when this will trickle down to allow banks to lend again. Our members now need access to capital again, and that can be equity or debt. Equity investors are far more particular about where they allocate resources now. But I believe there is massive scope for the banks to reopen the lending books again, especially to SMEs [small and medium enterprises]. The banks are saying "we'll do business again, but the conditions are stricter than before", and maybe that's sensible. They don't want to expose themselves again and they have their own liquidity problems.
What does Dubai need to do to make the business environment better here? If you could introduce one single reform, what would it be?
I'd single out visa regulations. Our members would like more permanent visa arrangements. Many would like to retire here after contributing so much to the economy. The Government has already taken some action towards making this happen, but more would be even better.